Sometimes I think of spreadsheets as the dirty secret of the IT world today. We’ve seen a huge explosion in the number of productivity tools on the market tailored to help workers with different aspects of doing their job and organising their information, in part to keep them from simply dumping lots of information into Excel or whatever program they happen to use. And yet, spreadsheets are still one of the very, very most common pieces of software in use today to organise and share information: Excel alone now has around 1 billion users, and for those who are devotees, spreadsheets are not going to go away soon.
So it’s interesting that there are now startups — and larger companies like Microsoft — emerging that are tapping into that, creating new services that still appear like spreadsheets in the front end, while doing something completely different in the back.
One of the latest is a startup called dashdash, a startup out of Berlin and Porto that is building a platform for people, who might to be programmers but know their way around a spreadsheet, to use those skills to build, modify and update web apps.
The dashdash platform looks and acts like a spreadsheet up front, but behind the scenes, each ‘macro’ links to a web app computing feature, or a design element, to build something that ultimately will look nothing like a spreadsheet, bypassing all the lines of code that traditionally go into building web apps.
The startup is still in stealth mode, with plans to launch formally later this year. Today, it’s announcing that it has received $8 million in Series A funding to get there, with the round being led by Accel, with participation from Cherry Ventures, Atlantic Labs, and angel investors including Felix Jahn, founder of Home24. (It’s raised $9 million to date including $1 million in seed funding.)
Co-founded by serial entrepreneurs Humberto Ayres Pereira and Torben Schulz — who had also been co-founders of food delivery startup EatFirst — Ayres Pereira said that the idea came out of their own observations in work life and the bottleneck of getting things fixed or modified in a company’s apps (both internal and customer-facing).
“People have a lot of frustration with the IT department, and their generally access to it,” he said in an interview. “If you are part of an internet business, it’s very hard to get features prioritised in an app, no matter how small they are. Tech is like a big train on iron tracks, and it can be hard to steer it in a different direction.”
On the other hand, even among the less technical staff, there will be proficiency with certain software, including spreadsheets. “Programming and spreadsheets already store and transform data,” Ayers Pereira said. “There are already a lot of people trying to do more with incumbent spreadsheets, and [combining that with] non-IT people frustrated at having no solution for working on apps, we saw an opportunity to use this to build an elegant platform the empower people. We can’t teach people to program but we can provide them with the tools to do the exact same job.”
While in stealth mode, he said that early users have ranged from smaller businesses such as pharmacies, to “a multi-billion-dollar internet company.” (No names, of course, but it’s interesting to me that this problem even exists at large tech businesses.)
Dashdash is not the only company that is tapping this opportunity. The other week, and IoT startup called Hanhaa launched a service that would let those using Hanhaa IoT sensors in their networks to monitor and interact with them by way of an Excel spreadsheet — another tip of the hat to the realisation that those who might need to keep tabs on devices in the network might not be the people who are the engineers and technicians who have set them up.
That, in turn, is part of a bigger effort from Microsoft to catapult Excel from its reputation as a piece of clunky legacy software into something much more dynamic, playing on the company’s push into cloud services and Office 365.
In September of 2017, Microsoft gave a developer preview of new “streaming functions” for Excel on Office 365, which lets developers, IT professionals and end users the ability to bring streams of data from a variety of sources such as websites, stock tickers and hardware directly into a cell or cells in an Excel spreadsheet, by way of a custom function. “Because Excel is so widely used and familiar to so many people, the ability to do all kinds of amazing things with that data and without complex integration is now possible,” said Ben Summers, a senior product manager for the Office 365 ecosystem team, in a statement to TechCrunch.
That ability to remove the bottleneck from web app building, combined with the track record of the founders, are two of the reasons that Accel decided to invest before the product even launched.
“We believe in dashdash’s mission to democratise app creation and are excited to back Humberto and Torben at such an early stage in their journey,” said Andrei Brasoveanu, the Accel principal who led the deal. “The team has the experience and vision to build a high-impact company that brings computing to the fingertips of a broad audience. Over the past decade we’ve seen a proliferation of web services and APIs, but regular business users still need to rely on central IT and colleagues with development skills to leverage these in their day-to-day processes. With dashdash anyone will be able to access these powerful web services directly with minimal effort, empowering them to automate their day to day tasks and work more effectively.”
With every tool that emerges that frees up accessibility to more people — be they employees or consumers — there are inevitably questions about how that power will be used. In the case of dashdash, my first thought is about those who I know who work in IT: they generally don’t want anyone able to modify or “fix” their code, lest it just creates more problems. And that’s before you start wondering about how all these democratised web apps will look, and if they might inadvertently will add to more overall UI and UX confusion.
Ayres Pereira said dashdash is mindful of the design question, and will introduce ways of helping to direct this, for example for companies to implement their own house styles. And similarly, a business can put in place other controls to help channel how web apps created through dashdash’s spreadsheet interface ultimately get applied.